The MT Diary

Shirtless in Beijing; Toronto's taxi choice: conspiracy bore or Mr Geography's challenge?

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I don't often pack too many clothes for a business trip, but every now and again Homer nods, and he did so on a recent visit to China, when I forgot that if you spend one night at a hotel you can't do the laundry thing without paying an outrageous supplement.

It didn't seem too serious a mistake, as there was a Lane Crawford department store right opposite the hotel, in Beijing's new financial district. So, in a gap between exciting meetings about non-performing loans (NPLs) in Chinese banks (I can get quite excited about them), I slipped across the road to pick up a size 151/2 with regular sleeves. Nothing fancy, plain white would do.

It turned out to be one of those department stores that is really an umbrella for a collection of designer boutiques - Hugo Boss, Ermenegildo Zegna and the rest - which gave me a sinking feeling. But I was only after a shirt, so I could scarcely come to serious harm. I picked up the one that seemed to have been least mucked about with by a 'designer' and shimmered over to the checkout, only to discover that it cost RMB2,600 - £200, give or take a dim sum.

Muttering something about credit cards and hotel rooms, I beat a humiliating retreat. Surely I had stumbled on a shirt made of spun silk or rare birds' nests? No, all the rest were roughly the same price. You could find a discounted number at RMB2,000, but only with those tacky short sleeves.

Your correspondent is not easily daunted. He knows that every fancy new quarter of Beijing is still surrounded by real life, with ordinary shops selling to Chinese bank clerks. So I set off to the nearest frontier, to find - sure enough - an old scruffy street and a few hutongs. But, oddly, I stumbled on an area in which the only thing you can buy is Perspex trophies for ping-pong tournaments or tai-chi championships. There were 23 trophy shops, all in a row - and nothing else. By this time, the NPLs were calling loudly, so I had to retreat once more, shirtless in China.

Next day, I ironed a dirty one and doubled up on the roll-on, seedy but solvent.

In Beijing, it's hard to avoid the Olympics. When I say I opposed the London bid, the Chinese look quizzical. Another of those English jokes they don't quite understand. Boris Johnson is in the same category. As the mayor of the next host city, he has to turn up at the closing ceremony to accept the Olympic flag. Gordon Brown will be there too, in attendance but without a role. That should be the most interesting part of the whole event, unless Paula Radcliffe stops for a pee again.

On to Toronto, which is not so hazardous a place to shop. Indeed, now that you can't take maple-leaf syrup in your carry-on, I am stumped as to what to buy in Canada.

I nearly didn't make it into the country, in fact, harassed by an awesomely patronising immigration official who wanted to know precisely how I was going to be spending my time in his thrilling city. When you are seriously interrogated on why you are going to Canada it is easy to forget just why you are bothering. They ought to be more careful, in case all their visitors turn straight round and go home.

The taxi driver from the airport was no better. Taxi drivers are, as a general rule, banned from this column: they are always the last resort of the lazy reptile in search of local colour. But I think it right to tell you that, according to my informant, a grizzled, long-time Torontonian, the Chinese earthquake was caused by a weapons system on board an American satellite, as a shot across the bows of the uppity Chinese, ordered by the White House.

Not many people know that. Now you are proudly in their number.

Once you get into the taxi-driver habit, it's tough to break it. An hour later, I piled into another cab outside my hotel, on the way to dinner, and I began to wonder whether the immigration department had planned a series of stings. 'Your ride is free if you answer a question,', said the cabby, 'are you prepared to take the challenge?'

Well, in for a cent, in for a loony, I thought, so accepted. Like a flash, he came back with: 'What is the capital of The Gambia?'.

I'm not too bad on geography, but this was a well-judged arrow. 'Conakry?' I hazarded. 'Very, very good, sir,' he said, 'but wrong.' (It's the capital of Guinea next door).

It turned out that I had chanced on a Toronto character - maybe the Toronto character - called Mr Geography, who rides around the city challenging allcomers to competitive quizmastery on capitals, rivers and all. The deal is that you have to swap questions the length of the ride.

He won hands down, though I did win a point with a question on the new name for Bangalore - Bengaluru - which was only a couple of weeks old. At that, he stopped the cab to make a note in an ancient exercise book. And he didn't know the name of the town that is the centre of Welsh Patagonia. Ha.

Sadly, you can't book Mr Geography. The only way to experience him is to ride around in cabs until you strike lucky. Time-consuming, maybe, but it is the most interesting thing to do in Toronto, by a distance.

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